Wednesday, April 22, 2020

50th Anniversary of Earth Day

by Bryan Whitledge

“Give Earth a Chance”: The words that ran on the front page of Central Michigan Life 50 years ago feels as relevant today as it was then. Before 1970, “Earth day” had a very different meaning: usually an astronomical measurement of the length of one rotation of our planet about its axis – an Earth day vs. a Mars day or sometimes the two words came together as a coincidence of two sentences, one ending in “Earth” and the next beginning with “Day.” But in April 1970, that all changed—Earth Day became synonymous with conservation, ecology, and environmentalism. One of the many places where Earth Day went from an idea to a movement was on the campus of Central Michigan University.

Earth Day display in University Center, 1970

During the spring of 1970, CMU students, along with students at hundreds of colleges and universities around the country, prepared for the first Earth Day. The proponents of the first day of collective ecological activism expressed fears that the atmospheric pollution and unclean rivers plaguing the environment would only get worse if people didn’t act immediately to change things. In Mt. Pleasant, the activists who planned events didn’t limit themselves to a single day—they planned a four-day program of seminars and teach-ins about a range of topics: environmental crises, government & citizen action, population control, ecology, environmental awareness, and more. And those who planned the events got many of their peers on boards: Central Michigan Life took a stance in the articles written during April of 1970—everyone should do their part to save the planet. The Intra-Fraternity Council planted trees. Others collected cans from off-campus housing to sell back to the brewing companies to be reused (this was six years before Michigan’s ten cent deposit for bottles and cans came into being).

Earth Day events registration table in the UC, 1970

Among the highlights of the Earth Week activities was the impressive line-up of guest speakers: U.S. Senator Philip Hart, singer/songwriter and activist Malvina Reynolds, Michigan Governor William Milliken, noted journalist and activist Norman Cousins, beloved Michigan author Jim Harrison, and several others came to CMU to offer their takes on conservation and the environment. Governor Milliken mentioned proposed legislation to go after polluters of Michigan’s waterways. Senator Hart spoke of federal leadership in the quality of the environment. Malvina Reynolds sang songs in praise of the Earth and lamenting the harm done in the name of progress.

Crowd listening to Earth Day presentation in the Finch Fieldhousem 1970

Because of the hard work of the organizers and the community spirit of many at Central and in Mt. Pleasant, the CMU Earth Day events in 1970 were a success. The same can be said for those who organized similar events at countless colleges and universities across the country.

Earth Day events in the University Center, 1970

Earth Day panel of speakers, 1970